Gilmore and Varadkar accused of ‘opportunism’ by snubbing men-only event

Ex-president of Savannah Hibernian Society says Irish politicians disrespected ancient traditions

Paul Jurgensen, former president of the Hibernian Society of Savannah, said they didn’t know Eamon Gilmore (above) “from Bozo the Clown”. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Paul Jurgensen, former president of the Hibernian Society of Savannah, said they didn’t know Eamon Gilmore (above) “from Bozo the Clown”. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times


A former president of the Hibernian Society of Savannah has accused Irish politicians of taking advantage of the men- only traditions of one of Irish America’s oldest societies for political gain.

Paul Jurgensen, who was the society’s president until St Patrick’s Day last month, criticised Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar for taking advantage of the “distinguished reputation and traditions of the Hibernian Society of Savannah” to promote their own political aims.

Mr Gilmore skipped a visit to Savannah in Georgia, home to one of the largest St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States, on a trip to the US in March 2013 because a visit to Savannah would have involved his attendance at an annual men-only dinner hosted by the Hibernian society.

Mr Varadkar addressed the society’s St Patrick’s Day luncheon on his visit to Savannah last month, telling guests that there has been “some controversy about members of the Irish Government attending your events in recent years” but that the Government respected the society’s traditions.

The Minister said in a speech that the Government was pursuing an agenda of equality and reform and that it was important for Government Ministers to be “consistent in what we say at home and abroad”.

Mr Jurgensen, a medial doctor in Savannah and a prominent Irish-American figure in the city, described Mr Gilmore’s actions as “despicable” saying that he was never sent an invitation to attend the Hibernian society’s annual dinner.

“We don’t know Eamon Gilmore from Bozo the Clown,” he said.

The Savannah society had been male-only for 202 years and it had received “no complaints about this status until Irish politicians criticised the society”, Mr Jurgensen told The Irish Times in Savannah. “These guys are a bunch of opportunists. They don’t give a damn about people’s prerogatives or traditions or policies; they only care about their own opportunity for political gain.”

The former society president made his comments when asked about the controversy, noting that he wanted to “set the record straight in defence of the distinguished history of our society”. Stressing that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the society, Mr Jurgensen said if it were to happen again they would “lodge a complaint with Ambassador [Anne] Anderson”, the Irish Ambassador in Washington.

There was a possibility that women may one day be admitted into the society, he said, but the group had a right to remain men-only as an entitlement guaranteed under the United States Bill of Rights.

A spokeswoman for Mr Gilmore said it was the custom in previous years that ministers travelling to Atlanta over St Patrick’s Day would also attend the Hibernian dinner in Savannah. “When it was presented to the Tánaiste as an option, he simply ruled it out,” she said, as he objected to any event that excludes women.

Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said that the Minister’s views on male-only functions were “well-flagged” in advance of his decision to speak at the Hibernian society’s luncheon at its invitation and that he received a “very warm welcome from the society and his address received a standing ovation”. Speaking through his spokesman about his visit to Savannah, Mr Varadkar said: “I really enjoyed attending their luncheon and dinner and am grateful for their hospitality.”

Mr Jurgensen, who is of Irish descent, disputed aspects of the media reports about Mr Varadkar’s visit, saying he had not spoken at the society’s dinner but at its luncheon. He also took issue with the Minister drawing connections between himself and Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet in his speech when Mr Varadkar noted that both had attended Trinity College Dublin. “Robert Emmet he ain’t,” Mr Jurgensen added.